ROOT CAUSES, Victory Gardens Theater. One picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes; certainly the electric-colored pop paintings by Ed Paschke that dominate the design of this world premiere have clarity and power sorely lacking in Steve Carter’s script. Inspired by the case of one Felix Wayne Mitchell, head of an Oakland heroin operation in the late 70s, Root Causes concerns August “Happy Cat” Harrison, an elegant black gangster with a taste for white women and the New York Times crossword puzzle–Carter’s signal that this unhappy cat is cut off from his roots. Regarded as a Robin Hood by some in the black community, Harrison is convicted on dope charges, killed in prison by a gay bodybuilder, and finally made the subject of renewed media hype when his conviction is posthumously overturned.
Carter’s scattershot text ranges from O’Neill-like expressionism (complete with masks) to In Living Color-style satire of racial stereotypes. His muddled tone, propensity for cliched dialogue, and fondness for goofy gags (many concerning the give-and-take between an inept black anchorman and his female Asian colleague) undercut his climactic attempt to hammer home a meaningful message–that America’s racial divisions are what allow drug lords to flourish. Despite its ambitious multimedia design and a good cast headed by charismatic Phillip Edward VanLear as Harrison under Dennis Zacek’s direction, Root Causes needs major rewriting before it’s worth an audience’s time.